BY TARAH CHILDES
Ishtiyaq Shukri’s first novel, The Silent Minaret, won the inaugural EU Literary Award. His second, I See You, has just been published.
There are a number of thematic and structural similarities between I See You and your previous novel, The Silent Minaret. In both novels, the main character is abducted, and structurally, both novels jump around between past and present. Was this intentional, and if so, why?
Yes, both novels collapse and blur the boundaries between past and present, so that everything happens at once. They don’t operate on notions of linear time because, well, the universe isn’t like that. Our notions of time are artificial, and the past is always with us. I’ve come to think of it in terms of births and navels. We are born at a specific time, yet our navels are ever-present. It doesn’t matter when something happened, but rather that it did. Though having said that, and to answer your question about intent, no, this wasn’t intentional. I don’t write literature in response to the theories and laws of physics — nothing could be further from my mind. And I didn’t set out to write I See You in the style of The Silent Minaret. It just happened. And while with The Silent Minaret I realised quite early on that I was going to be dealing with a missing protagonist that is not how I See You started. On the contrary, I See You was always for me going to be about apparent freedoms in a world characterised by conflict and war, and I began with the chapter called “Sister Slice”. It’s the oldest in the book, with early drafts going back to May 2005. I wrote it as a form of protest on the morning after Tony Blair’s third election victory — despite his support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It came clear as bell, and required very little rewriting or revision. As for the theme of abduction, it came later, once Tariq’s work had evolved sufficiently to represent a certain level of threat. When I finished I See You, a friend asked me, “Why do you choose to write about missing people?” But I don’t think it works like that. I don’t think writers have much say in the matter. I think characters choose their writers, and that writers simply have to do as they are told. So perhaps the question should be about why the missing choose me.
You described writing The Silent Minaret as a project six years in the making, initially disguised as a PhD paper. How did the writing process differ with regards to I See You?
I think that when it comes to it, writing is writing. It’s the same process, of showing up at your desk and putting in the hours. But I think I’d say the main difference between writing the two novels was my confidence second time round to be open about it and to say, “I’m writing a novel”. I didn’t have that kind of confidence during the writing of The Silent Minaret, and I kept it quiet. Also, it must be said that writing a second novel is so much harder than writing a first. Looking back, there’s something pure and effortless and uncomplicated about one’s first novel. Second novels are notoriously hard, like “second album syndrome”. Still, it seems to me that it’s in the writing of a second novel that one discovers the kind of writer one really is. I’ve come to realise that I can’t write stories that sit still, are about one place or follow a straight line. That’s just not how stories have revealed themselves to me — so far.
Structurally, I See You is a quilted story, in which you make use of multiple narrators, radio interviews, emails, journal entries, newspaper articles, personal recollections and an opera score to weave together the tale. The effect was, to me, quite disorientating at times and in hindsight, almost seemed as though it could be a collection of “evidence”. What prompted you to use this technique and to what effect?
That would be the abduction talking. And the war. They are disorienting experiences, to say the least. So I’m not sure that “technique” and “effect” were uppermost in my mind. It’s more about the age of interruption in which we live, in which different stories are constantly competing for our attention. People juggle multiple narratives all the time — 24-hour news, binge-watching your favourite TV series, radio, music, social media, texts, trailers, the lives of others, memories. Our lives are constantly crisscrossed by different narrative styles. Against this reality, a novel with a single plot, a linear narrative and an all-knowing narrator, well that just seems rather one-dimensional and somewhat contrived to me. They are the real “techniques” and “effects” — ordered linearity, a voice-of-God narrator, with all life’s questions comfortingly answered at the end. Life’s not like that. They are the techniques we impose on a chaotic and disordered world — comfort writing and comfort reading, which are not dissimilar to comfort eating. John Berger put it best: “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.”
The idea of freedom or the lack thereof, is a core theme in I See You . You describe the “deep state” — the idea that beneath the veneer of free elections and new leaders, there is in fact a core elite group that controls South Africa to protect their own interests. Do you believe this to be true?
Do I believe South Africa is controlled by an elite? How would most South Africans answer that question? Is there a country in the world that isn’t? But what the writer believes is secondary. Of greater consequence is the text and how the reader responds to it. Look to the text. Does it contain a world which has caused the reader to think twice, to look again, to reconsider the way things are — or appear to be — and never to see the world in quite the same way again? Has the work unsettled received notions of “truth” and “freedom” and “power”?
In your opinion, what role does the writer play in society? Is it the writer’s mandate to be the voice in the dark? To make known the unknown?
That sounds very grand and very noble, but I don’t know, and I don’t think it’s for me to answer. My role is simply to show up at my desk and do my work. The rest isn’t really up to me.
The Silent Minaret and I See You are both classified as post-apartheid novels. Would you classify them as such? Do you feel there are limitations to that label?
The Silent Minaret has also been described as a “post-9/11” novel. These classifications organise the world around a single event and imply some kind of resolution, achievement or progress. What does “post-9/11” really mean? It means 350,000 killed in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan at the cost of $4.4 trillion. To make those numbers tangible, that’s more than the cost of the Second World War and worth about 5,800 British Libraries. And if we were to hold a minute’s silence for each of the victims, it would last eight months. And what does “post-apartheid” mean when South Africa is being torn apart by inequality and when the word “apartheid” is used to describe different kinds of discriminatory practices around the world, the segregation and partitioning of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, for example? To me these classifications seem deceptive in their camouflaging of more complex realities.
How has the EU Literary Award impacted your career as a writer? Has it impacted what you write about?
No, I don’t feel as though it’s impacted what I write about, and I don’t think about the award when I write. In fact, I specifically don’t keep any memorabilia where I write. Prizes are nice, but that’s not why one writes, and you can’t allow prizes to influence what you write about. Having said that, I’ve already mentioned the reticence I felt while writing The Silent Minaret. First time writers have modest ambitions — to write something worthwhile, to see it through to completion and hopefully to get it published. Against that background, the EU Literary Award was so much more than I had ever imagined, and a great start to a writing career. It was an honour and a privilege, and I remain humbled.
You live in London and yet you write about South Africa, Libya, Palestine, Afghanistan and the fictional Kasalia. How much research goes into writing about a novel set in so many varying locations? How “familiar” do you need to be with a country to write about it?
London, too. The Silent Minaret is in a very real sense also a novel about London, and Issa could not have disappeared from Johannesburg, for example, in quite the same way or as effectively I don’t think. And as this is AERODROME, it would perhaps be apt to point out that it’s also a story about journeys — especially flight. Kagiso makes a startling discovery on a flight from London to Johannesburg. I travel a lot and always have. Write what you know, is the common advice. I moved from Cape to Cairo in 1996, and have spent a lot of time in the Middle East since then. I was living in Egypt when the Palestinian refugee crisis was unfolding in Libya. Friends of mine were working for an international aid agency responding to the crisis from Cairo. I’ve also lived in Palestine, and have worked closely with the Afghan community in the UK and in the broader diaspora. And then there’s Kasalia. So many African countries, including South Africa, manifest the issues of Kasalia, it seemed to me prejudicial to name one — hence the fictional name of Kasalia, which is an amalgam of many African contexts. I originally experimented with an unnamed setting, until it became too anonymous and vague and bland. Of course it involves a lot of research. I remember when I was trying to create a name for my new African country. It’s not as easy as one might imagine — at least it wasn’t for me. So I studied the names of African countries. It struck me that many are between three and five syllables long, ending in an ‘ia’ suffix. But more importantly, it’s about bringing feelings to one’s research, and about entering fully into the lives of others. Leila’s speech and Tariq’s isolation, for example, involved substantial amounts of research, but unless the writer frames the research with human responses and emotions, the writing will remains cold and academic. If you have known the loss of freedom, or extreme isolation, or love, or rage, then you can set that experience in London or Johannesburg or Kas because love is love, and readers will identify with it whatever the setting.
When you’re in the process of writing a novel, how do you structure your writing time? Do you stick to a very strict routine at all?
It depends on the stage of writing. I usually write in one sitting of between two and four hours, depending on the stage of writing. Sittings become longer the more the work progresses. When I’m in the thick of it, four hours can easily become six or more without me noticing. I always rewrite in a subsequent sitting. If I’ve written something in the morning, I’ll rewrite it in the evening. Or if I’ve written at night, I’ll rewrite the following day. Rewriting is the only absolute for me. I am an obsessive rewriter. It’s my favourite part, because I’m no longer faced with those debilitating blank pages. The first draft is never good enough. Rewriting is where the real work happens, and it’s always a slower process. Sometimes it can take several weeks to hone a piece — like Leila’s speech in I See You or the journey through the Karoo in The Silent Minaret. We all know the adage, “There’s no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” And when it happens that a piece of writing comes perfectly in one sitting, like taking dictation, that’s a very rare experience, and totally exhilarating.
What are you working on next?
It’s early days, so I’m still waiting to see where it’s heading. Looking back, if I’d had to answer that at this stage of writing The Silent Minaret I would probably have said, “A road trip,” because that’s where it started — till the story got shaped by events and developed a mind of its own, ambushing my intentions for a hedonistic road journey. What happens after really is an act of faith and you have to hand over the wheel as it were and trust the direction your story — the story — is taking. So much of the creative process is counterintuitive. I say “the” story because once it’s taken on a consciousness of its own, it really isn’t mine anymore. After that point I’m just the scribe. So perhaps that’s what I’m working on — trust and faith that my new novel is already there. I just have to arrange a date and get to know it. Isn’t this too a theory of time — that the future already exists?